This Japanese Engineer Created the Robots That Make Your Cars

Seiuemon Inaba pioneered the machines that help make products as diverse as cars and phones

It is well-known nowadays that robots do much of the work making a car, their giant arms swinging in precise motion to bolt on doors and weld metal. Less well-known is one of the major figures behind that assembly-line transformation, a Japanese engineer who built an empire at the base of Mount Fuji where his own robots churned out robots for the world’s factories.

Seiuemon Inaba, who died at age 95 on Oct. 2, led robot maker Fanuc Corp. from its start as a Fujitsu Ltd. spinoff in 1972. Today it is one of the principal industrial-robot makers in the world with a market value of some $40 billion, helping make products as diverse as cars and smartphones.

Born March 5, 1925, in Chikusei, a small city some 50 miles north of Tokyo, Mr. Inaba was the son of a local landowner. He attended what was then known as Tokyo Imperial University during World War II, where he studied arms manufacturing.

By the time he graduated, Japan had lost the war and all its weapons factories were closed, as he recalled in a 2014 interview with the Tokyo branch of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. Through a connection, he managed to get a job in 1946 at the company now known as Fujitsu.

It was a fertile period for Japanese engineers. Inspired by U.S. technology and mass-production techniques, the founders of companies such as Honda Motor Co. and Sony Corp. were tinkering with their first products.

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